“What Would Jesus Do?” Often reduced to WWJD, it is a common refrain seen on all kinds of slick consumer facing Christian themed products from bracelets to book covers. Sadly, I think that while it has good roots and a good idea; the question is the wrong one, and the way its application has evolved in the last few decades lead many of us into error. I propose that the better question is “What Would Jesus Counsel Me to Do?” even though it doesn’t make as compact an acronym for marketing.
Let’s start by looking at the phrases entrance into the general vernacular, and it’s evolution into modern forms. We can find a strong contender for the entry of the phrase into Christian circles in the 1896 novel In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. In this form, the question is asked repeatedly by characters in his novel leading to significant changes for the better in their lives. The examples given, and the theology of the author, promote a view of Christian socialism and a rejection of the consumer life based on the recorded actions of Christ during his ministry. Sometime in the early 1990’s the phrase was adopted by a new group, the loosely organized Evangelical Youth movement in America. In these groups, the question is the same, but the method of answering is very different. Rather than drawing on the limited scope of Christ’s living ministry, they draw on the idea of Christ’s submission to the father and endorse a strict adherence to Scriptural guidance. It is this later interpretation which guided that 2005 book What Jesus Meant by Gary Willis. Just in looking at the Introduction and resurgence of the phrase, we already see two very different answers, and must question the notion that this question will provide a cure to ambiguity of proper action.
Now, why do I think that this is not the correct question? I feel that the question carries within it a dangerous seed, the seed of misunderstanding Christ, and by that error allowing us to reach wrong conclusions or even ask entirely wrong questions. I think that this can happen in two distinct ways. If we place Christ properly in his place as the Son of Man and Son of God, a member of the Trinity, we will find one set of problems. If we rather let this question allow us to think of Christ as “just like us” a fellow human in a tough world, we run into a different set of problems.
In the first case, we have to confront the fact that the answer to “What Would Jesus Do?” is not going to always be an answer for us. WWJD? Exist Eternally with the Father and the Holy Spirit. WWJD? Be Made Incarnate While Still God. WWJD? Walk On Water. WWJD? Feed the Multitudes With but Little. WWJD? Raise the Dead. WWJD? Be Crucified After a Sinless Life. WWJD? Rise From the Dead Incorruptable. WWJD? Ascend Into Heaven And Be Seated At the Right Hand of the Father. And perhaps most importantly, WWJD? Remain Living Eternally in Glory and Provide Me With His Love by the Power of the Holy Spirit. At the heart, what Jesus WOULD do is what Jesus Does, Love us Eternally. But what we really want to know is What Would Jesus Do (If He Were Me Right Now). But there is the problem… We have not lived from the Beginning. We have not remained blameless our whole lives. We have never been of one substance with the Father. The issue here is that we posit that Christ would find himself in our position, and by claiming that, we implicitly either deprive Christ of his Glory, or we exhibit dangerous Hubris. We are man, we are made in the image of God, but we are not made of the substance of God. Christ wants us to do that which is right for man, which may not always be right for God. Do any of us think it would be our place to die on the Cross for the world? Why then would we assume that at all other times what we should do is what Christ would?
In the second case, by thinking of Christ as “just like us” we allow ourselves to start by setting aside anything a man could clearly not do. The cost, however, is that we are then asking what a madman or liar would do, and claiming that is what we should do. Where do I get off saying that? Well, C.S. Lewis said it far better than I: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” If you are not a Christian, you may be capable of looking at the actions of Christ as separate from his teachings, and seeking to emulate those as you might do with a figure such as Ghandi or Mother Teresa. But, if you are looking at what Christ said and did, if you are looking to the Scriptures as those who ask WWJD are, this is not a valid choice. To accept Christ’s teachings is to accept that he is Lord, or something sinister. To allow yourself to subscribe to this model of Christ Like Us is to reduce the divinity of Christ, and so to invalidate the Three Persons of God. If this is the way you think about the question then “Spout nonsense and subvert the faithful away from God” becomes a valid answer, and I think we all know that no-one asking the question would accept that answer as valid.
Further, once we remove Christ from who he is, we open to door to allow him to be who we would like him to be. It is a core part of his identity and his story that he was a Jew living under Roman Occupation during the time of the Caesars. Christ lived in a world in which he walked and met people face to face on the street, in the fields doing hard manual labor, but at a time when the ideas of vast Empires and great luxury were known and could be used in his teachings. All things are possible to God, but he chose that time and that place as the point at which the life of Christ would be best. Christ was not sent to a primitive people transitioning from clay to bronze. He was not sent to a world engaged in an explosion of new arts and sciences. He was not sent to a world tamed by machines and electrical power. When we ask questions about what would Jesus do in these settings, we are no longer seeking to understand our Lord, but to create a new fictional character which has those attributes of the Lord we wish to identify with or emphasize. We know what Jesus does in these settings; he leads his Church and sends forth the Holy Spirit to aid his people. Sadly, that is not something we can do. This habit can be seen in the many variations of the question put forward by people who feel they are acting in good faith: “What Would Jesus Drive?”, “What Would Jesus Eat?”, “What Would Jesus Laugh At?”, “What Would Jesus Occupy?”, “How Would Jesus Vote?” Each of these questions is loaded, with a correct answer in line with the politics of the person asking the question. Christ was not born as an enfranchised consumer in a capitalist democratic republic, and acting like he was only serves to diminish the Power of who he is.
This brings us around to my proposal for a better question: “What Would Jesus Counsel Me to Do?” I feel that not only is this question far more respectful of the awesome majesty of our lord, but is also more in line with the biblical examples of his ministry. Those seeking to learn from Christ do not ask him “Master, how are you going to get into the kingdom of heaven?” they ask him instead, “Master, how am I to get into the kingdom of heaven?” Christ did live a sinless life. Christ can provide guidance for us in his deeds, but he provides far clearer guidance in his words. Love God. Love Neighbor. Simple enough commands, but so hard to put into practice. Christ’s ministry abounds with rock solid examples of counsel on what we can do: render unto God that which is God’s, do not seek to serve two masters, comfort the needy, share the Word, love one another as Christ has loved us. This doesn’t always mean that the answer will be easy, or that we will all agree on what the answer is.
Just as it can be tricky to separate kindness from fear to confront sin, it can be hard to separate tough love from rejection or disrespect. Sorting these matters out is a matter the faithful must ever attend to. So long as we allow those who speak with a voice of hatred, even if they advance the same position that we do, to claim the mantle of Christ, we fail our duty to the Lord. We cannot allow the voices that speak for tradition and sanctity to be repurposed by the adversary and turned to message of exclusion and judgment. What Would Jesus Counsel Me to Do? To share his love with all nations and peoples of earth, saints and sinners alike, and to cast out the teachers of false Christs which drive his children from the truth. I guess that is why I share these thoughts.